During the 2010 Women’s Boxing World Championships in Barbados, the sport’s governing body (the International Amateur Boxing Association, or AIBA) handed out athletic skirts to semifinalists and finalists. Many boxers and sports commentators felt the move tacitly implied the women should be wearing more feminine garb in the ring, instead of the customary shorts and tank tops. Their suspicions were ratcheted up when the AIBA suggested competitors wear skirts during the Pan American Games this past October, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The AIBA won’t admit that they’re trying to feminize women boxers. The association’s president, Ching-Kuo Wu, claims his association is merely trying to differentiate them from their male counterparts: “I have heard many times, people say, ‘We can’t tell the difference between the men and the women,’ especially on TV, since they’re in the same uniforms and are wearing headgear.” The subtext to what Wu’s saying seems to be that more people will tune in to watch women fight if they look more like, well, women.
Do you think that more people would want to watch this fight if the boxers were wearing skirts? That’s the logic driving a proposal by the president of the International Amateur Boxing Association. He says skirts could help signal that these are women, something he believes is lost on TV viewers. But will feminine flourishes really draw in a broader audience? Look through this gallery of relatively ladylike pro boxing outfits. Yes, it's clear, even while channel surfing, that these are women. But no matter how shiny, ruffly, or pink the sportswear, there is no obscuring that this is a sweaty, violent sport.
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Mia St. John vs. Brenda Felter, 1998
It must be noted that pros have always had way more freedom than amateurs to dress as they like. (Pros are barred from Olympic competition.) Not only can they experiment with fabrics and colors, they don’t have to wear the hair-obscuring headgear that the AIBA says makes it so hard to tell that amateur competitors are women. American Mia St. John (left) rarely dressed like other boxers, wearing outfits more reminiscent of the world of gymnastics or aerobics.
Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport via Getty Images.
Mia St. John vs. Imelda Arias, 2001
Another typically sparkly outfit from Mia St. John (right) and another typical functional outfit from Mexican boxer Imelda Arias. St. John drew fans as well as critics by posing for Playboy and branding herself as the “hottest woman in boxing.” Some suggested the “Bunny Boxer" made a mockery of the game, while others credited her with proving that it’s possible to look feminine while boxing.
Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport via Getty Images.
Sumya Anani vs. Lisa Holewyne, 2004
Massage therapist turned boxer Sumya “the Island Girl” Anani (left) breaks stylistic conventions with a sort of tie-dye skort.
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Myriam Lamare vs. Olena Tverdokhlib, 2003
Myriam Lamare (right) of France shimmers as she lands a right hook on her opponent Olena Tverdokhlib of Ukraine.
Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images.
Myriam Lamare vs. Eliza Olson, 2004
Lamare(right) takes shiny to the next level the following year as she exchanges punches with Eliza Olson of the United States during their World Boxing Association Light Welterweight bout.
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images.
Noriko Kariya vs. Cindy Christian 2005
At right, Noriko Kariya’s skirt threatens to untie as she throws a punch at Cindy Christian of the United States on May 28, 2005. ''I want the sport to get to the point where you can't see a difference between men and women, stylistically,” Kariya, of Canada, has said—referring of course to boxing style, not fashion. “I want to be part of what elevates boxing … to move it past the Mia St. Johns and girls slugging it out like a bar fight."
Herby Whyne/Getty Images.
Sharon Anyos va. Christina Tai, 2005
Shiny pink World Champion Sharon Anyos (left) ducks a jab from Christina Tai during the Women’s Lightweight boxing fight at Trusts Stadium in Waitakere, Auckland, New Zealand.
Sandra Mu/Getty Images.
Regina Halmich vs. Ria Ramnarine, 2006
In an outfit reminiscent of Tinker Bell from Peter Pan, Germany's Regina Halmich (left) celebrates after winning her WIBF flyweight world champion title fight.
Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images.
Myriam Lamare vs. Anne-Sophie Mathis, 2006
In what was perhaps the most shimmery match in French history, the referee stops France's Myriam Lamare (left) and her compatriot Anne-Sophie Mathis during the WBA Women World Boxing Championship in Paris. Mathis won the match.
Medhi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images.
Marzia Davide vs. Usha Nagisetty, 2009
Wearing the sort of skirts currently under consideration by the AIBA, Indian boxer Usha Nagisetty (left) and Italian Marzia Davide battle in the 57 kilo exhibition match before the men's final of the AIBA World Boxing Cup in Milan. Most women boxers in the AIBA have been less inclined to adopt skirts. The uniform discussion has been intensified by the fact that women boxers will participate in the Olympics for the first time this year.
This week, AIBA officials meet in Bangkok to discuss the association’s various dealings—including a proposal that women boxers wear skirts during competition. The proposal comes at an important time in sport. Women’s boxing is set to make its Olympic debut this summer in London, and currently only three weight classes are competing, even though men compete in 10 weight classes. More viewers could eventually lead to more weight classes being added to future Olympic rosters.
But there’s no evidence that more people will tune in if women wear skirts, and furthermore, many women boxers find the entire issue frustrating. "My personal opinion is if you want to wear a skirt it should be a choice, it shouldn't be forced upon anyone," Natasha Jones, a lightweight who won a silver medal at the European Championships last fall, told Reuters. At that competition, only Poland and Romania’s fighters seemed to be taking their cues from the AIBA—their boxers wore skirts in the ring.
Queen Underwood, the U.S. favorite to win gold in the lightweight category, says the idea of wearing a skirt while boxing is distracting—she hasn’t worn a skirt in years and felt self-conscious wondering what she looked like. Sports psychiatrist Carole Oglesby, former president of WomenSport International, echoes Underwood’s sentiments. “I’ve read [the boxers] say things like, ‘I just don’t think I’d be comfortable.’ I think that’s a mild way of saying this is embarrassing,” Oglesby says. “From a performance perspective, that’s a completely unnecessary barrier to deal with.”
Forcing women boxers into skirts won’t solve the sport’s publicity problem, but women’s boxing still needs to increase ratings to get those weight classes added. Publicity is key to this mission, with a particular emphasis on the boxers’ personal narratives.
India’s a good template for the way women’s boxing can take hold in the rest of the world. Their women’s team is expected to bring home one of the country’s only medals in London. It’s such a part of the cultural consciousness that a movie is being produced about the star boxer, 28-year-old mother of twins Mary Kom, who rose from a poor upbringing to become a five-time world champion.
In the United States, Underwood is a former pipe fitter from Seattle and a victim of child abuse. She is supporting herself through fundraising to get to the Olympics. Hers is an inspirational story, and her success has little to do with femininity. The more audiences are asked to focus on the fight (both in the ring and out), the more audiences will tune in—with or without a skirt.